Active Voice

In the past 35 days, I’ve done something that I’ve never done before—twice, actually. At the end of March I attended BinderCon in Los Angeles, a symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers, and I just returned from 99U in New York, an annual gathering focused around actionable insights that help creative people push ideas forward.

What’s different is that I attended these conferences on my own dime and, despite their divergent focus and audiences, I found a common pulse: namely, the responsibility of voice and the power, and price, of silence. On Friday, the founder of Black Girls Code told us that, when polled, 50% of elementary school girls indicated an interest in computer science, but when asked again in high school, the number fell to less than two percent. “What happens to girls between elementary school and high school?” she asked.

Two days before, I posed a eerily similar question while writing one of a series of poems for my latest project, a multi-media installation called Ugly Me that will open at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery in July. These poems have revealed how deep my relationship with silence goes, and particularly how it relates to my sense of value and self-worth. Now I see that this project and these struggles are what drove me to BinderCon and 99U, and more pointedly, why I felt strongly enough to pay for them out of pocket. The lines from that poem go:

something happened off camera between six and sixteen
a tree falling in the forest, no one to hear it, not exactly
breaking in increments
no one recorded or remembered or heard
except me.

Silence has played a debilitating role in my life, I realize, and when I say silence, I mean the kind where a person doesn’t speak for or about what she truly believes in, mainly out of fear. In all honesty, the other reason I paid for 99U with my own money is that I didn’t want to have to make a case for it at work. The person who oversees my department likes to tell me who I am (Gabi, you are very linear) and I didn’t want to struggle, yet again, to insist that I am creative, too, and thus, deserve to attend this conference. Instead, I used vacation days and personal funds, both of which I am thankful and fortunate enough to have.

My silence is a problem, though. Both BinderCon and 99U have helped me see that when I avoid conflict, there is a greater loss. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood opened BinderCon by talking about swagger. “Swagger is something you need in this industry. Talent—and swagger—are genderless.” Five hundred women held a collective breath when she said that. As girls, most of us were not conditioned for swagger; we were encouraged to be nice, polite, well-behaved, obedient, “good” and, of course, quiet.

During the conference, we learned that approximately 90% of op-eds printed in mainstream media are written by men, something The Op-Ed Project addresses. Surprisingly, when the founders studied the phenomenon, they found that it wasn’t gatekeepers eliminating women’s submissions per se but that only about 10% of the submitters were women. The dilemma became less about the suppression of women’s writing (in this instance) and more about why women’s voices were not surfacing in the first place. Some of it comes down to encouragement and education, but beneath that is a lack of belief that our opinions are important enough and deserving of submission. Some people might call that swagger.

BinderCon challenged us to think about our role as leaders who can model the way. Our visibility—voice—is the only path to change. As one speaker noted,

The more we say it, the more we get to say it.

When we don’t experience women’s voices in media, film, fiction, comedy, etc. we believe that they don’t belong there or that they’re not interested; similarly, when we don’t see women in tech, we think there’s not a place for them there, either. After BinderCon, I talked with one of our owners about DigiPen, which offers degrees in programming, game design and computer science and engineering. When I expressed a lack of personal interest in participating in the program, his response was, “Yeah, it’s really more of a guy thing.”

Instead of countering his thinking, I sputtered and said something like, “Just because it’s true for me doesn’t mean it’s true for all women.” Rather than debate the validity of his point, I walked away in disgust. Maybe it’s because he is my boss, or that I didn’t have the hard data to prove it, but I felt uncomfortable saying, No, that’s not true, and here’s why. Rather than face confrontation, I walked away, silent.

At 99U, technologist guru Anil Dash challenged us to ask who it is behind the technology we use. He pointed out a major blind spot in game and app credit in particular which, unlike liner notes or movie credits, don’t list individual makers. Who are these people? What do they believe in? What about diversity in tech? Whose voices are dictating the conversation, and how can we have transparency when there is no visibility, period?

Within his question was a nod to the lack of women and minorities in the tech and venture capital world, all quite similar to what we heard at BinderCon, which offered panels like, “The Only Girl in the Writers Room.” Essentially, what is the cost to us as a society when these voices are invisible?

Yet, even when we do give voice, there’s a price that comes with speaking, particularly for women. In some countries, speaking begets abuse, imprisonment and death; in others, we are fired, socially shunned or harassed. A few weeks after BinderCon, a friend and I watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus sexual assault by Amy Ziering, a BinderCon panelist. When I tweeted my support of the film, an internet troll immediately upbraided my praise with a hook: “if you’re into feminist mythology.”

Big and small, these constant messages that women are crazy, hysterical or talking out of turn support a mythology of us-and-them. Strangely, we as a culture, meaning all of us, all genders, buy into it. The feeling of being held down by this ideology, even just socially, is maddening. I’ve witnessed professional meetings in which women share ideas that are shrugged off only to be reiterated by men and lauded moments later; rarely does anyone point this out, and certainly not the speaker herself. We remain silent because calling attention to our contributions or a point of inequality isn’t seen as polite or acceptable behavior—for women. Perhaps this is why at both 99U and BinderCon they opened the conference by saying that each of us had a right to be there.

After years of attending professional conferences, I finally felt like I could be myself in these spaces. Maybe their assurances helped, but it was also because I registered as a human being and not as a representative; I had a sense of agency and voice. A poet-friend, the fabulous Jeanine Waker of The Drop Shadows, who is critiquing my poems for Ugly Me, made a point just before I took off for 99U. She said that she wanted to see more of me in the works, that the ideas were interesting but too general — that I was, in effect, hiding in the poems. I laughed because I’ve struggled with this all my life. I think I’m being clear about my intentions but I’m not. One of the 99U presenters who spoke on communication, trust and building community reminded us, “You are harder to understand than you think.”

How true. And it means that we have to try even harder. 99U reminded us that consensus is stronger when it arises out of conflict; results are better when we drive toward meaning rather than avoiding discomfort. A comic book artist named Kelly Sue DeConnick with bitchin’ hair dyed red-pink support this during the final session, Changing the World. She told us, tongue-in-cheek, that her method of change revolves around making people as uncomfortable as possible. Lead with your heart and seek discomfort yourself, these are two hallmarks of her practice. Vulnerability leads to the authentic voice that we seek in our art —the movies and books that touch us, teach us empathy, make us look at the world differently— this is why they speak to us, but this is also what creates risk and sets up conflict.

As artists, we have to overcome the fear of attack. Yes, we are putting ourselves out there with our real thoughts, feelings and experiences so that humanity can feast on and sometimes disembowel them. Inevitably, there will be haters and trolls or simply people who are threatened by our personal truths and try to hold them, and us, down. In the words of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (or women) do nothing.” Today’s the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine features Gabriel González, the creator of Crudo Ecuador, who describes the threats and intimidation he and his family have received as a result of of satrical memes on his website. Right now, his voice is silenced for the sake of their safety; again, fear and silence go hand in hand.

There is speaking our experience and then there is speaking out about our experience; far too often, we fail on the latter for fear of loss, harm, consequences and conflict. Two weeks ago, someone at my firm joked that a female colleague and I should use our feminine wiles to get secrets out of a competitor at an upcoming conference. I quipped, “Fair warning that this is going in my blog,” to which he held up his hands and said he was only kidding. I believe he was and, despite the comment, I also believe he respects me as a professional. Yet, would he say this to a male colleague, even in jest? And now, what do I do with this exchange? I could keep it to myself or make a point of noting that even now, in a liberal nation, city and state, and within a progressive organization, that these subliminal beliefs about what women are good for are institutionalized to a very deep degree. We need to talk about it, to daylight even casual exchanges like this. Yet, I hesitate doing it for fear that this could damage someone — him, me, our workplace, etc. That said, how many times has this happened and gone unmentioned? Even if the consequences feel risky, isn’t it worth speaking out? Isn’t the alternative –more of the same– is actually the greater risk?

Another poem in Ugly Me seeks to find where this encouragement of silence began in my own life:

Seven words:
children should be seen and not heard
tug at my sleeve
demand to know where I get off
thinking I’m worthy to speak

In a house where I was constantly told to shut up, I could write whatever I wanted; in writing, I was free, thus my love of writing was born. What started out as obsessive journaling growing up has become about more than the recording of my personal, navel-gazing injustice. It’s taken me decades to figure out my purpose as a writer, namely that I want to replace the obedient cardboard cut-outs and blow-up dolls we see scattered throughout literary and mainstream fiction with rich, complex female characters who embody the universal struggles in a distinctive way. I’m not interested in writing stories for women, rather I want to write about great women. I want to give readers new and different options to consider when they think about women in the world; I want to use voice, rather than silence, to achieve that.

In the studio of my mind, I have agency and voice and the freedom to explore. Still, though I feel like I can say and focus on what truly interests me, I have to work hard not to hide behind the lines. I invite outside critique of my work to help me move past my own subliminal pre-set of goodness and politeness; if they win, I’ll never make anything worthwhile. Like DeConnick said, I’m here to make myself —and everyone else— as uncomfortable as I can, and that takes effort, but it’s worth it.

In her session at 99U, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna noted that should and must is a choice we are asked to make again and again in our lives; the more we choose should and the less we choose must, the more conflicted we feel. For me, silence feels like a should. When I refrain from expressing myself, a sense of constriction, of physically being held down, wraps my body in tight, prickly anger. A voice says that, if I want to be perceived as easy to work with or remain in someone’s good graces, I should let the moment pass without a fuss. It’s the adult version of children should be seen and not heard.

Must, on the other hand, can feel cathartic, but it’s not easy. There is no road map to must, no promises or assurances; sometimes must involves loss, and even if it’s loss of something that no longer serves us, it’s  always the harder choice. Must is unexplored territory, thrilling in its foreignness, ultimately more rewarding for the boon of learning it brings, yet just as daunting because we are conditioned by our programming to respond to the shadow of should. We pretty much know what happens with should, and as the saying goes, the devil you know…

I could go on sharing what I learned from BinderCon and 99U but I’ll close by encouraging you to do something that you feel in your heart that you must do. Go mountain biking with your daughter. Paint something with your brother. Go outside. Meet a teacher or friend, someone you respect and learn from, for an in-person experience. Tell someone that you love him or admire her, particularly if you’ve never said it or they’re not expecting it. Lend your support, encourage someone’s heart when you see them struggling. Do something —anything— that scares you if only to show a younger version of you that it can be done and that failing is okay, too. Show them by your actions that trying is winning.

Most importantly, please speak. If you remain silent about a great idea for fear of rejection or about injustice for fear of punishment, ask yourself why — is the threat real? Is the risk of your silence more than the reward of your voice? Better yet, when the opportunity arises, consider it a responsibility. You have a unique voice, something truly distinct to give the world: your story, your human experience.

If each of us remains silent, eventually everyone will.

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